April 15 is Tax Day. As we race to get our taxes filed, let's consider what we actually get for our tax dollars. In Minnesota, we are putting together our state budget for 2014 which we intend to reflect our values as a state.
While every state faces its own budget challenges, we share a common challenge: crafting state budgets as our nation struggles with economic challenges and federal budgeting uncertainties. The roller coaster ride of fiscal cliffs, indiscriminate automatic cuts, debt ceilings, and other Washington shenanigans has been distinctly unhelpful.
In Minnesota, we cut back on crucial investments in education and infrastructure as tax revenues plummeted during the recession. Now with a slow recovery, we need to re-invest in our priorities around safety, security and productivity. Looming uncertainty makes it more difficult to commit to those investments. Here are a few suggestions for how Congress can reshape the federal budget to help the states continue to pull through the recession and emerge stronger and more economically competitive than ever.
First, Congress must find a way to bring more certainty back to the budget process. No more phony "fiscal cliffs" that get solved at the last moment. No more threats of government shutdowns.
Second, Congress needs to learn to make strategic budget priorities just as we have to do in our states. Each year over half of the discretionary spending Congress appropriates goes to Pentagon and war spending. Meanwhile the Pentagon is the only governmental agency that cannot pass an audit to show how it uses our tax dollars. Congress cannot continue to exempt the Pentagon budget from scrutiny while making deep cuts to other programs. About one-third of non-defense discretionary spending (the spending Congress votes on every year) goes to the states, so overspending at the Pentagon inevitably squeezes funding for programs on which our states rely.
Third, Congress continues to fund out-of-date weapons systems that we may never need or use. The F-35 is a perfect example. It is over budget, behind schedule, and plagued with technical problems. The future of America's security will not be determined by aerial combat between fleets of opposing aircraft, but by things like cyber security, counterterrorism and investing in economic competitiveness.
Fourth, we are scheduled to spend billions of dollars over the next ten years for nuclear weapons that were designed to fight the wars of the last century. For the cost of just one new nuclear submarine, we could provide body armor and bomb-resistant Humvees to all our troops overseas, house and treat every homeless U.S. veteran, and still have $2.2 billion left over to pay down our debt. Congress should focus on protecting the nation from 21st century threats and rebuilding our nation's economy, not paying for pork barrel nuclear weapons projects.
Finally, many Pentagon contractors have successfully lobbied for generous tax breaks. We all use our nation's roads, count on schools to educate our future workforce, and rely on public safety workers like firefighters, so why should Pentagon contractors get a break on their taxes? Citizens for Tax Justice found that aerospace and defense firms paid an effective tax rate of 17 percent from 2008 to 2010, lower than the average of 18.5 percent paid by all industries. It's especially galling when these same contractors are seeing big profits and executive pay on par with Wall Street executives.
We all do our part by paying our taxes every April. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society." Now we need Congress to do its part by putting together a civilized budget for our society that invests our tax dollars wisely and reflects our values as a nation. We cannot afford to keep spending on out-of-date, unnecessary Pentagon programs. We must reshape the Pentagon budget to respond to 21st century threats, we must repair our economy, and we must start investing in the future. Let's send this message to our representatives in Congress!
Sandy Pappas is the president of the Minnesota Senate and vice president of the Women Legislators' Lobby, a program of Women's Action for New Directions.